Rise (and cost fall) of the digital control centre

July 29, 2021

Michael Vardi

Co-founder of Valerann

Major roadways are often actively managed by road operators(“operators”), trusted with the safety of our journeys, efficiency of traffic, and the upkeep of the road itself. To accomplish their task, and meet their own internal targets, operators use a variety of sensing technologies to collect data from the road so that they can monitor how the traffic is evolving and know if there is anything they must do. If an event, an accident, a bottleneck, or infrastructure damage is detected, the operator must validate the event, find its location, and dispatch a response.

At the heart of this operation is the traffic control centre. Today the control centre is usually a small building (or a few rooms) that house a few interconnected activities and functions.

Control Centres are mostly based on many digital-ready systems connecting to a single room
  • The actual control room, with many screens showing video, data from sensors along the road, status of different signs, and other information that may be relevant to the life-or-death decisions operators often need to make. Here you can have anywhere from 1 to dozens of operatives at any one time.
  • An emergency response room to manage exceptionally large and complex events that require a collaborative response
  • A server room where most of the disk space and processing power enabling the entire control centre is stored
  • A patrol response where the patrol services for the road is based out of (often with a direct opening to the parking lot / nearest road)

The control centre is in charge of the ‘road management value chain’. The ‘road management value chain’ is a chain of actions and responsibilities that ensure the road is safe and flowing. This includes:

  • Detection of events that risk safety, traffic flow, & infrastructure condition
  • Validation of event alerts and assessment of their severity
  • Response dispatch to the event through patrol, VMS, and other sources
  • Monitoring progress of the event
  • Clearing the event
  • Setting all response tools back to normal
  • Post mortem analysis
  • Repeat

This is an often life-saving process that is crucial to ensure the operator is aware of major risks, is able to quickly respond and alleviate them, and return traffic to normal. For few very busy roads, this process takes on 100% of the operatives time, ‘allowing’ the operatives to take on additional tasks and duties within the roads scope of responsibility. At the same time, many roads remain unmonitored and unmanaged due to lack of resources and funds. This opens an opportunity.

Today control centres are managed close to the road they manage. This is a practice that was adopted when all the systems had to be physically controlled and connected through wired communication lines. Today, with the introduction of wireless and cloud technologies, this is no longer required, but the practice persists. However, if we look at the functions the control centre plays, we see that some functions must stay close to the road (e.g. patrol and potentially a local response room), but there are also clear opportunities to optimise the control centre to this new age.

Move to the cloud and save £250K / year

The most obvious first step (for those who have not already done so) is moving the control centre servers to the cloud. This saves both in capex cost and the operational costs required to ensure the upkeep of these systems on site (IT personnel, running costs, etc). Also, it actually increases the resilience of the control centre as it becomes possible to have multiple instances of the control centre in different environments. So, theoretically, if the control centre burned down and AWS crashed, you could easily have a twin back-up system operational in Azure still available through your laptop.

Consolidate control centres to reduce running costs by $550K / year

Now that you moved to the cloud, and all data is being streamed through the service of choice, you can now access all this data remotely. This means you can consolidate your control centre operations for multiple roads in a single control centre. Operationally, some operators already do this at a regional or local level. Highways England have their Regional Control Centres managing multiple motorways in a region. Likewise private US operators, which operate multiple assets in the same state, will manage these assets from a single control centre (despite the assets often serving different cities). For operators that have yet to consolidate their operations this presents the opportunity to decrease costs, increase utilisation, and increase staff proficiency. (i) Reducing the costs associated with running multiple centres. (ii) This consolidation will increase the utilisation of multiple under-utilised centres. (iii) Better utilization will increase the proficiency of the staff that now have the work to justify full time attention focused on monitoring and management.

Create control as a service offering to generate revenue of $100–250K/year

For those who do not wish to consolidate, or alternatively only manage a single asset, there is still a sizable opportunity. Many roads could benefit from more active management, but do not wish to invest the capex to enable it. Using connected sources of data under utilised control centres can provide monitoring and management services to other roads, increasing their utilisation, creating additional revenue streams, and improving the expertise of their staff. This can either be a road connecting to the original road, improving the visibility of both assets. Alternatively, this could be a road on a completely different timezone, increasing the utilisation of the control centre during trough traffic.

There is still some way to go to fully remote operations. However, there are some things we can do today and some benefits we can easily reap. The first steps an operator can take today are

  • Cloud — Starting working with cloud providers and make sure you understand the benefits of this technology. False fears around security and resilience can inhibit organisations from gaining true cost savings and improved utility
  • APIs — Make sure you are able to easily share data with the partners you chose to, this will make any future integration significantly easier
  • Take stock — It is important to know what data sources you have available, where it is stored and how. This will enable you to make future moves to the cloud (or even just to upgrade systems) more manageable

Already by doing this you can have some initial easy wins

  • Easily scale your response — control centres are often staffed to deal with emergencies, not day to day. This means excess resources. By digitising parts of your control centre you can enable operatives to support remotely, reducing the on-hand staff required at any one time and making it easier to get the response capacity when you need it
  • Ensure system resilience by making sure your data and systems are not all in one, on-premise, ‘basket’
  • Easily share information with other stakeholders (internal and external)

The future of control centre digitisation is already starting. Many industries have already adopted a fully remote approach (e.g. defence often have ‘war rooms’ on one side of the globe making real time decisions on battles and operations on the other side of the planet). Likewise, many road operators are starting on this path; moving to the cloud, increasing services being delivered digitally, deploying devices connected through IoT and cellular networks, etc.

The more operators push this topic the more resilient their operations will become, the higher their utilisation and the lower their costs.